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05/01/2012

The Doll Princess

Tom Benn

– 1 –

THE KING

 

July 1996

 

Somebody once told me that before prison, Frank used to moonlight as an Elvis impersonator. Rumours can be dangerous things.

 

I watched two new lads go in first for a bollocking. I pulled up a stool, took a reckless sip of Styrofoam-cup tea and opened out theManchester Evening News. Tea rings, biro scribble. The paper was torn, missing half a headline. I looked at the bird that had made the front page.

My top lip was burning.

She had olive-skin, sharp features, and was well put together – tallish, maybe. Off-the-shoulder sweater. Short black pencil skirt. Unforgiving heels. Lips sucking what could’ve been champagne through a thin white straw.

I lifted the Evening News up to show our Gordon. He was sat at the corner end of Frank’s marble-effect bar, reading today’s Mirror.

‘What you make o that?’ I went.

‘Fuck me. Better than in ere, that.’

‘A nine or a ten?’

‘Ten. Aye, that’s a ten.’

‘Thought she’d be too dark for you,’ I said.

‘Not arsed, me.’

I laughed. Gordon thumbed back the Mirror – big hands making a noisy mess of the paper until he was near the front. He spread the pages along the bar, ironed the creases out with his arm – held it up for me.

‘Nowt t’write ome about that, is it?’ Gordon was snapping the topless blondie from behind the page with his finger, making her tan-bed legs and belly wobble. He shook his head at me and then went: ‘Sayin our standards o too igh, mate?’

‘I’m sayin you wouldn’t kick her outta bed, neither.’

‘Pends,’ he said.

‘Depends on what, mate?’

‘Pends on if she brought that ten along wiv er.’

Gordon flipped his paper over to finish reading the sport.

I went back to the ten on the Evening News. I recognised the surroundings – she’d been snapped in Terence Formby’s Kitchen Club just down the road, and recently, since the decor matched their refurb job last May.

I lifted the paper off the bar so the Pole could give the place a once-over before opening time. I left the picture alone for a minute and began reading the story:

 

Twenty-three year-old Egyptian-born student, model and socialite Saafiya ‘Safir’ Hassan was found dead yesterday morning in the basement of a Manchester block of flats. The cause of death is unclear, with reports of heavy toxins in Safir’s bloodstream, neck injuries and strong evidence of sexual assault.

Belgian-schooled in her teens, Safir was the heiress to the growing multimillion-pound Egyptian Hassan oil and export fortune. She divided her British life between London and Manchester whilst studying Law and Business at Manchester University. She was last seen leaving the exclusive Kitchen Club on Deansgate with an entourage in the early hours of Wednesday morning. Police are hunting corporate diplomat Abdul Muhsi who vanished shortly before her body was found. Muhsi is believed to have functioned as her British chaperone and is thought to be still in the UK. Safir’s partially clothed body was discovered hidden underneath rubble… [Contd. on page three]

 

I turned over, put the Evening News back down on the bar. The page corners became a damp see-thru grey that glued poor Safir face down, smothering her in disinfectant. I skimmed the rest of the article, feeling like shit, and gave my tea another go.

I burnt my bottom lip.

The Pole was trying to finish off the bar. He was an illegal, all Frank ever seemed to hire. Our Gordon rubbed his boxer nose as he read – sniffed, yawned. The Pole cleaned round him. Gordon didn’t look up.

The empty restaurant tables out front were cut into daft shapes, all laid out in a slick jigsaw pattern. The Britton provides opulent urban dining, Frank once paid this poncy food critic to write in a local rag.

I looked at the clock on the wall and then breezed through the Evening News again – still bomb stuff, more bomb stuff – stopping on page nineteen. There was a fifty word piece in the bottom right corner, no picture, squashed next to a big colour ad for double-glazing:

 

An investigation is underway into the torture and murder of a twenty-five year old prostitute identified as Alice Louise Willows. Her body was found dumped along Stockport Road near the McVitie’s factory on Wednesday morning. Police are following up a lead on a black or dark blue BMW, possibly a 7-Series, with private registration. They are appealing for further information.

 

I went to school with an Alice Louise Willows. She lived down the road from me in Woodhouse Park when I was a kiddie. Her mam made gingerbread and all sorts and used to say I was a good lad for walking with her girl to school. In fact, Alice Willows was the second bird I ever shagged and should have been grateful she hadn’t been the first. I hadn’t seen Alice in a decade and it felt like more. But she’d be twenty-five now. It was her and she’d ended up on the game. Tortured. Murdered. Fuck.

I looked up then over my shoulder as Bill and Ben came round from the back, went under the bar – started for the door.

‘Your go,’ one of these young lads said to me as they headed out – face screwed up like a toddler with a scuffed knee.

‘Is fuckin chef in yet?’ Gordon shouted to them as they left, still nose-down in the Mirror.

‘What’s up with you?’ I said. I got off my stool to head into the back for my go with Frank.

‘Not ad me Weetabix,’ Gordon said, folding up his paper.

I looked at the clock again. It had gone half noon.

He said: ‘Could do wiv summat when fuckin staff get in.’

Frank Holland had a thick brassy voice. Thick short arms and legs and a rugby-ball-shaped face that wrinkled when he was happy and wrinkled even more when he wasn’t. He had bad Elvis mutton chops and a Brylcreem quiff, which led to some of the lads calling him ‘the King’ behind his back. He was still on the right side of fifty but he’d have to show his passport to get it believed. He’d only done the bird the once – a short spell for a Section 20 before I knew him. These days he was a posh city-centre restaurateur, loan shark for five area codes and a small-time but steady ecstasy distributer. We all helped out. I’d chuck veg in a pan, kick in front doors round Openshaw and run small traffick and supply on a weekend. I was young but they came younger. Besides, I’d fucking earned my spurs.

‘Ah told um both. Ah said “nobody sells in these clubs but us. Yav three fuckin venues ter cover, three fuckin venues! Two nights a week. Yer not exactly stretched fuckin thin.” Ah said “It’s agreed. That’s yer turf, that’s where yer surf. Now fuck off.”’ Frank bellowed this to me across the table, exploding in laughter. ‘Bastard kids playin silly buggers. They can all piss off.’

I reached into my Harrington – took out an envelope and pushed it towards him. He’d just put away a large fry-up.

Frank said: ‘Least ah can always rely on you, Bane.’

‘Six ton,’ I said.

‘Fell out of is pocket in the end did it?’

‘Aye. On his way down the stairs.’

Frank laughed. He brushed through the wad of notes with his thumb, a yellow thumbnail that needed cutting – speeding up the job. Frank said: ‘Thought ee dint av owt? Spose to av cut off ‘is benefits along wiv ‘is bollocks.’

‘Says he won the other night at Belle Vue.’

‘Fuck off. Six hundred quid? Oo was the lucky dog?’

‘Him,’ I said.

Frank laughed again. I waited until he’d finished.

‘Frank, you know owt about that prozzy killed other night? They found her up on Stockport Road.’

‘Where’d yer hear this?’ he said.

‘Read today’s Evenin News?’ It was folded up crisp on the table, next to his empty plate.

‘Ad a quick look.’

‘In there.’

‘What, she a little friend o yours was she?’ he said.

Little Alice Willows. Poor cow.

‘No,’ I said.

‘Yer busy tonight?’ he said.

‘Might go out for a drink with n old school mate. Why? You need summat doin?’

Frank grinned. ‘Nah, don’t go mad on the Dandelion n Burdock, son.’ Frank frowned. ‘Jus pop round the Chemist if ee rings but that’s bout it.’ He pushed up his cuff and squinted down at his Omega. ‘Are we fuckin openin ere or what? Where’s me staff?’

I twisted round and saw our Gordon coming through into the back room. ‘Anythin goin?’ he said.

‘Fuck off, big lad,’ Frank went. ‘Get ter bloody work.’

Gordon eyed up the remains of the King’s fry-up. ‘Oo made that?’

‘Frank did,’ said Frank, patting his flab. ‘A right belly-burster.’

I stood up and zipped my Harrington.

‘Tell us a dirty joke, Gordon,’ ordered the King.

I looked at them both. Gordon opened his gob and then shut it again.

‘No?’ Frank went.

‘…plus Rohypnol equals yes.’

Frank roared.

 

I came back through to the front and the Pole tossed me a wave. Posh surfaces buffed up a treat. My Styrofoam brew was still on the bar top so I picked it up, put it to my lips and tipped. Cold.

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